Editorial: 4 Lessons from the volcanic ash crisis


By Olivier Jankovec, Director General, ACI EUROPE

Since 2008, it seems to me that writing for this editorial on anything but the state of near-constant crisis in which the aviation industry has lived would put me off message. But as I was already looking ahead to the summer, I thought Europe’s airports would be back to some form of operational and commercial ‘normality’. Alas, this proved to be nothing more than wishful thinking. After the global crisis and a renewed terrorist threat, a volcanic eruption was just around the corner.

As national authorities started closing their airspace one after the other from 15 April onwards, ACI EUROPE became directly involved in the issue, together with the AEA (Association of European Airlines). Joining forces with our airline partners, we spent the following weekend supporting the European Commission (EC) and EUROCONTROL in their efforts to define an alternative procedure based on a more realistic and accurate definition of the so-called no-fly zones. On 18 April, as the crisis reached its peak with 313 European airports totally paralysed, we publicly called for an immediate reassessment of flight restrictions.

The next day, responding to the demands of the industry, both Air Navigation Service Providers and EU Transport Ministers endorsed the alternative procedure proposed by EU Transport Commissioner Kallas and EUROCONTROL. This allowed for a gradual re-opening of most of the continent’s airspace within the next 48 hours.

Since then, ACI EUROPE has continuously monitored the situation. This has involved working very closely with the EC to define its stance on the impact of the crisis, including a range of immediate and structural measures in favour of the aviation industry. This has also involved ongoing support to the AEA in securing continuous improvement to current procedures through the involvement of EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency). While the Icelandic volcano is seemingly dormant as I write these lines, we need to make sure that Europe is now fully geared to deal with this kind of occurrence to avoid unnecessary air space closures in the future. This is essential to restoring certainty and the confidence that citizens and businesses need in order to be able to go ahead with their travel plans.

Since the start of the eruption, Europe’s airports lost 18 million passengers. This has translated into €290 million of lost revenues and additional assistance cost to stranded passengers. Beyond this massive economic impact, the volcanic ash crisis has delivered a number of key lessons for the future of European aviation.

Lesson 1: Implementing the Single European Sky is an immediate and urgent priority. The permanence of fragmented airspace in Europe clearly made worse the impact of the crisis – not least because it hampered any dynamic towards a reconsideration of the initial flight restrictions and the definition of an exit strategy. That dynamic only appeared when the EC and EUROCONTROL got involved. This needs to be fully accounted for by national governments. There can be no excuse to further delay the integration of Europe’s air space.

Lesson 2: Aviation is essential to the life of Europe’s citizens and businesses. If there is a good side to this crisis, it is in the fact that the general public finally realised how much aviation is needed. Indeed, the situation also showed that opportunity for effective substitutability through other modes of transport remains fairly limited. While this was almost immediately recognised by Commissioner Kallas, it needs to be translated into concrete and lasting policy directions at European level.

Lesson 3: National governments appear to have little interest in supporting aviation. While the EC tabled relief measures for the industry within a week, governments have since shown little interest to act – in particular when it comes to granting financial compensation for the losses suffered as a result of truly exceptional circumstances. This is in sharp contrast with the way governments acted after 9/11, not to mention the massive bailouts recently afforded to the financial sector to weather a crisis to which it largely contributed – the amount of State aid authorised by the EC in 2009 was in excess of €3,000 billion! Come rain or shine, it is clear that aviation in Europe is on its own, for the most part.

Lesson 4: Airports are now essential nodes and businesses in the European transport network. The EC has expressly recognised the severe impact of this crisis not only on airlines, but also on airports and their ground partners. It has also acknowledged the positive role played by airports in assisting stranded passengers. All this reflects the progress we have made in aligning the perception of our policy makers with reality.

The Centre for Aviation recently coined the phrase ‘Constant Shock Syndrome’ to describe the circumstances that aviation has to deal with. In the summer months ahead, I hope that we will see a little more of that oh-so-elusive ‘normality’ that has been so absent these past two-and-a-half years.

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